Saturday, July 11, 2009

Engineering marvel on track

Jupinderjit Singh travels on the scenic Jammu-Udhampur rail route where reality belies expectations

For passengers on the Jammu-Udhampur train every bend offers panoramic views.
For passengers on the Jammu-Udhampur train every bend offers panoramic views.

A train trip can be a fascinating experience for people of all ages. Imagine a journey between, around and through mountain curves and long, winding tunnels, over high bridges and dangerous khuds, over and along rivers, through thick forests, green fields and rich meadows. Every rolling vista is more beautiful than the previous one.

For aficionados of such journeys, where every bend in the track offers unheard of surprises, the Jammu-Udhampur rail journey provides panoramic views.

The track for this awesome journey took 21 years to build as engineers had to conquer one challenge after another. It has many engineering feats, including the regionís highest rail bridge ó Gambhir bridge. Apart from the 2-km-long bridge, it also has a nearly 2.50-km tunnel, which is even longer than the historic Jawahar Tunnel.

The Jammu-Udhampur track is the part of the 340-km-long Jammu-Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramula rail project.

The project has a long and chequered history. It was conceived over 110 years ago. In 1898, the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, Partap Singh, visualised linking Jammu and Srinagar via a train line.

But the very idea of a train running through a seismic zone did not find any takers a century ago as the route crossed major earthquake zones, and inhospitable terrain.

British designers suggested many routes, including a railway track along the historical Mughal road.

During the Raj days the Railways had been only able to run a train up to Udhampur from Jammu and between Baramulla and Srinagar.

There was also a proposal that the train on this route can be run on electricity through various hydropower projects that had been conceptualised enroute. After several years of planning, the project had to be abandoned, mainly because of the treacherous nature of the route and its huge cost.

The project remained forgotten even after Independence for a long time till about mid 1980s when the authorities once again thought of it and the work on it started.

The 54-km-long Jammu-Udhampur line was inaugurated three years ago. It took 21 years and Rs 515 crore ($130 million) for its construction. The line has 20 major tunnels and 158 bridges.

The train starts from Jammu and winds through the city presenting a spellbinding view of the historic Bahu Fort and Mubarak Mandi. One of the first tunnels is right under the Bahu Fort, around which the Jammu city developed.

The tunnel that was built right under it, without damaging the old fort, has been dubbed as an engineering marvel.

The train then climbs up to provide a panoramic spectacle of the Tawi river and the valley.

Chief Administrative Officer, Northern Railways, S R Ujlayan and Deputy Chief Engineer Vinay Tanwer, who worked on this tough and challenging project, have published their experiences in a book on International Conference on Tunneling Experiences.

"The rail project was one of the most challenging we ever undertook. Some portion of the tracks had to pass through the undulating and highly difficult terrain of the young Himalayas. The engineers tried all modern methods but eventually the traditional system of drilling proved effective," they add.

The officers reveal that the ground moved many a times and rocks, stones and other debris became loose. The area is earthquake-prone because of which the material used to construct tracks had to be very powerful and strong. The design and alignment of the rail track, too, changed many a times to prevent collapsing of the tunnels and the bridges.

Interestingly, the rail track has been laid in a gentle ascent. The ascent is so less (in mm) that it looks almost flat and the train runs at quite a high speed as if it is running in plains. Although if one sees the Jammu-Udhampur road that zigzags through the mountains, one can see how difficult it was to lay a track that had so few curves.

"There was immense seepage on the route due to nullahs flowing above the tunnels, which had almost jeopardised the entire project. The engineers had to build stronger and thicker concrete structures to prevent it. Their width went up to 25 metres on each side of the tunnel and also above it. Besides that structures were laid on the hilltops so as to regulate the flow of water," the officers add.

But this hard work has been worth the effort, claim the travellers, who have undertaken this enchanting journey.

"The experience of travelling in a train on this track was spellbinding," says Mohan Patel. He was travelling with his wife and three children.

"Last year, I had come to Vaishno devi shrine when someone told me about the enthralling train journey. So I travelled on the train myself to check the authenticity of this statement. The journey was indeed beautiful. So this year, I brought my children along. The return journey from Udhampur is even more enchanting. We would be travelling in the special aerodynamic DMU train, which makes the journey more enriching."

The train ride may be fun for tourists but for the residents of villages situated along the track, it has come as a great blessing. Vishal Bhat, who belongs to Bajalta, the first station after Jammu, can now commute to his village daily. Situated less than 20 km away, the Bajalta residents can now reach Jammu in 15 minutes. Earlier they had to take a long road route that took over one and half hours to reach Jammu.

Vishal commutes daily now instead of going home on weekends. There are hundreds others from Udhampur who commute daily now. Earlier they had to spend more money and time to reach their offices in Jammu. The DMU travel just costs Rs 9 one side while the general ticket in the Express train costs Rs 32.

Bajalta, Singar, Manwal and Ramnagar are thinly inhabited villagea along this rail track. Each has its own unique railway station. Some offer a view of the Himalayas, others of the deep valleys or sprawling meadows.

Rural art is evident in the houses along the track, as the train chugs leaving behind clusters of mostly kutcha and a few concrete houses. One can see the mud walls painted in bright colours and etched with lovely drawings.

For traders at Udhampur, the train has come as a lifeline. It provides easy transportation of fuel, vegetables and other goods which otherwise took long time via the road route.

Ramanand Bahria, a trader of Udhampur, says the train line has revolutionised their life and work, " We now dash to Delhi directly from Udhampur and Delhi businessman too, reach here easily in a short time and with less hassles. Earlier, they had to get down at Jammu and then travel by road."

Suresh, an MBBS student from Udhampur, is one of the hundreds of students who travel daily to Jammu from Udhampur and the villages enroute to pursue his education dream. Earlier many of them just could not dream of higher education due to the high cost and time involved.

Udhampur being the base of Northern Command, one sees hundreds of soldiers and officers commuting to and fro. Even the movement of a regiment has become easier as special army train can now take it to its new deployment place anywhere in the country.

The train may have made the life of people easier but for hundreds of security personnel, guarding the 20 tunnels over 150 bridges, is a tough task. These guards live in makeshift tents, their only entertainment being the sight of the passing train, whose safe passage is the aim of their deployment there.

For travellers journeying on this route there is some good news in the offing as the Railways is in the process of providing more facilities to them. Divisional Traffic Manager Railways Ashok Sharma says, as the route is quite popular among tourists the track has been extended to Katra. Due to flooding of a tunnel the operation has been delayed. Once it is cleared, train tourism would get a new fillip in the region," he adds.